Byrd: The folly of Cancel Colbert

BY MATTHEW BYRD | APRIL 01, 2014 5:00 AM

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Anyone who pays a semblance of attention to the Twitterverse could not help but notice the explosion of tweets featuring the hashtag #CancelColbert that swept across said verse and ignited a particularly vexing conversation the nature of satire.

On March 27, the Twitter account for the “The Colbert Report” sent out a tweet from the March 26 show that read, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” This tweet, clearly containing a vicious slur for Asian Americans, prompted activist Suey Park to start a #CancelColbert campaign that aimed to condemn show host Stephen Colbert for seemingly stunning incident of racial insensitivity.

However, further examination proves the issue to be much more complicated than that. When watching the sketch on the show from which the tweet was quoting, it’s very apparent that the context of the situation was completely obfuscated by the 140-character boundaries of twitter.

In the routine, Colbert, in his persona of a witless, demagogic right-wing political pundit in the vein of Bill O’Reilly, was reporting on Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington football team whose name is also a vicious racial slur, this one being for Native Americans (if you somehow don’t know what the name is, look it up), in order to try to deflect the criticisms that the name of his football team is racist and horribly offensive to Native Americans, setting up the “Original Americans Foundation” to ostensibly help benefit Native American communities but really to cynically clamp down on the uproar the team’s name has caused over the past year.

In trying to point out the hypocrisy and cynicism of this move, Colbert said that, to assuage fake outrage over Ching-Chong Ding-Dong, a racist caricature that Colbert dons from time (to mock white racial insensitivity it must noted), Colbert would start the “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” 

When viewed in this context, it becomes clear that Colbert is mocking Snyder for employing a cheap and ultimately deceptive method to distract from the fact that his team is represented by ugly racial slur. Hell, it’s even a good joke. In the tradition of all great satire, it aims up, at powerful (and horrible) people such as Snyder in order to point out an instance of racist hypocrisy.

As Neil Drumming at Salon has pointed out, the joke was ruined by the lack of context afforded by the perfunctory nature of Twitter. Essentially this whole affair boils down to a PR mistake by “The Colbert Report” Twitter team in not understanding how fundamentally unfunny its tweet is without the context. Without the context, Park is completely correct. With it, her argument is much weaker.

However, that still doesn’t resolve what is perhaps the bitterest part of this story. In response to their criticism of Colbert, Park and her fellow travelers were subjected to a torrent of patronizing “you just don’t understand satire” putdowns, racial slurs, and, in many cases, death and rape threats.

Clearly, of course, these actions are sickening, brutal, and reprehensible. But more importantly, they reveal this larger culture of misogyny and white supremacy that infects American discourse. I may not agree with Park on this particular instance of controversy, but on the whole, she’s absolutely correct in eviscerating our society’s morally bankrupt race and gender politics. Politics on full display in the particular vicious response Park and others were welcomed to. Maybe our focus should be less on defending Colbert and more on dismantling our institutionalized and internalized systems of injustice.

Just a thought.

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